“Our national priority”? Fasten on that phrase and a question posed by Kristof follows of necessity: “Do we really want to make accommodations across the range of faith? What if organizations affiliated with Jehovah’s Witnesses insisted on health insurance that did not cover blood transfusions? What if ultraconservative Muslim or Jewish organizations objected to health care except at sex‐segregated clinics?” Well, what if they did?
The bishops have it exactly right, as far as they go: “[Friday’s] proposal continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions.” But with their plea for special exceptions, they go only part way. What’s worse, since they supported Obama’s efforts to socialize American health care, they have no one to blame for this but themselves.
Turn anything over to government and the battle over conflicting values begins — the battle over “our national priorities.” With certain things — protecting our liberties from domestic and foreign threats, providing basic infrastructure and clean air and water — we pretty much all agree, if not at the edges at least in the main. But beyond those, we have vast disagreements about health care, education, retirement, and so much else that government dominates today, all at the expense of individual liberty and responsibility. The bishops are rightly concerned that Catholic employers are being forced to do what their religious beliefs prohibit. But that comes, necessarily, with the collective territory.
And it doesn’t help that Justice Antonin Scalia, a Catholic’s Catholic, laid a foundation for today’s dilemma. In 1992, in Employment Division v. Smith, he wrote that “We have never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate.” He’s right, but unfortunately the court has never drawn a proper constitutional distinction between what government is free and not free to regulate — the very question before it at the moment in the Obamacare litigation.
On the contrary, the court’s expansive reading of government power, especially over the 20th century, has enabled people like Kristof to assume the collective posture. Thus he writes that “the cost of birth control is one reason poor women are more than three times as likely to end up pregnant unintentionally as middle‐class women,” from which he concludes that “birth control is not a frill that can be lightly dropped to avoid offending bishops.” Rather, coverage for it “should be a pillar of our public health policy — and, it seems to me, of any faith‐based effort to be our brother’s keeper, or our sister’s.” As the president so often says, we’re all in this together, which means that if poor women end up pregnant unintentionally, it’s we who are responsible. That’s what we’ve come to.